What Does It Mean? Christograms

The widely used IHS Christogram originated in the 7th Century A.D.

We were in church not too long ago, and my daughter asked me about the symbol in the center of the cross on the altar, and what it meant.  In truth, I knew what it represented, it represents Jesus Christ, but I'm not sure I ever knew where it had originated. It's a good example of one of those symbols I've seen frequently, knew what it meant, but hadn't really explored its origins.  So Katie and I did a little research one evening.

It's called a Christogram, and it represents Jesus Christ.  The symbol is based on the first three letters of Jesus' name in Greek.  ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.  The symbol was first seen on coins at the end of the 7th century.  So it's been around for a long time.  Most commonly, it features the letters IHS, but sometimes you'll also see it using the intials IHC.  Both versions mean exactly the same thing and are based off the same greek word for Jesus.

The Chi Rho Christogram originated some time in the 1st Century A.D.
There's actually a much older Christogram called the Chi Rho that goes back to the first century and is based on the first two greek letters of the word "Christos" which is spelled XPIΣTOΣ.  The X is superimposed over the top of the P in this symbol. 

And there are a couple more--the Alpha Omega Christogram is another that has been used.  The Alpha and Omega letters alone are used often in religious iconography and frequently with the Chi Rho as you'll see in the image above. 

The Alpha Omega Christogram
The Alpha Omega symbol by itself isn't as common, but you'll sometimes see it on grave markers or worked into a stained glass window design.  The meaning of that symbol comes right from Revelations 22:13 in the New Testament, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."

Religious iconography and symbolism is a pretty interesting subject, and I highly recommend it if you're looking for a research topic--there is no shortage of materials. 

~Todd E. Creason